CyIIa, a cytoskeletal actin gene of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, is expressed specifically though transiently in the embryonic skeletogenic and secondary mesenchyme and, later in development, is permanently activated in the hindgut and midgut. CyIIa transcription follows, and is therefore downstream of, the initial specification of these embryonic domains. A detailed functional analysis of the cis-regulatory system governing the rate and the location of CyIIa expression during development was carried out using GFP expression constructs. About 4.4 kb of CyIIa sequence including a leader intron were examined for cis-regulatory function. Distal elements scattered over several kb account for 60% of the quantitative output of the expression construct and a strong amplifier of expression is located within the leader intron. However, the complex spatial pattern of CyIIa expression is completely reproduced by a compact upstream regulatory element <450 bp in length. We found no evidence anywhere in the 4.4 kb sequence examined for negative regulators required to repress ectopic expression. The specific site that mediates CyIIa expression in the midgut in late embryos and larvae was identified. This site is the same as that necessary and sufficient for midgut expression of the Endo16 gene late in development, and was shown to bind the same transcription factor. Except for some temporal and quantitative features, the S. purpuratus expression construct is expressed accurately and specifically in the same diverse cell types when introduced into embryos of Lytechinus pictus, which belongs to a different echinoid order. No ectopic expression was observed, in contrast to the result of a similar interspecific gene transfer experiment carried out earlier on a different cytoskeletal actin gene that is expressed much earlier in development. Presentation of the set of transcription factors that activate CyIIa in the differentiated cells in which it is expressed is apparently a conserved feature of these cell types.

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